Barnaby Joyce Nationals Michael McCormack
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

There have been three deaths so far from the first fires of the 2019-20 bushfire season. There will be many more to come. Will the political future of the National Party be among them?

There is every sign that the Nationals themselves believe that this is yet another threat to their hold on the Bush. Drought and structural unemployment have been wearing away at them for some time. Now, the whole of eastern Australia is set to go up in what is now that most Australian of things: the once-in-a-century fire happening for the third time in 10 years. 

These fires are happening with such frequency now that they are beginning to wear down the resistant scepticism of large areas of rural Australia. For three decades now, a great deal of rural identity has been based on counterposing concrete knowledge and experience to abstract science. “Their” city knowledge tells us structural climate change is occurring; we know that extreme weather comes and goes, bushfire and drought test you, and so on.

Except now the “extremes” have come and they aren’t going away again. The frequency is wearing down the distinct sense of Bush being and time that underpinned a politics of what one might call “folk denialism”.

It had already begun to collapse among younger rural people and women farmers and community leaders — those less invested in the bush myth for their own personal meanings. Now it appears to be hardening into a final resistance in some parts before cracking absolutely. 

Desperate to regain the appearance of leadership, the Nationals have turned their fire on the Greens, branding any mention of climate change as “political” at a time of national unity etc.

This too is an old populist move. Fighting current bushfires is tied to the first colonisation of a harsh, alien land, of the wars then fought in its name — all the moments when we were allegedly united, a pre-political founding. They’ve even managed to tie the Greens to a primitivist “other”: alleged “greenie” policies on bush fuel, back-burning etc.

Apparently six years of federal government, and years of Liberal and anti-green governments in NSW and Queensland, haven’t been enough time to attend to these matters. Desperate stuff, made all the more so by the substantial separation between the Nats and the people they continue to represent through the anti-democratic magic of exhaustive preferences.

Once, the Country Party represented (somewhat partially) a constituency with distinctive interests, and, crucially, a way of life. They represented farming communities above all, and in the eastern states, communities of local production circuits, and a degree of production-for-use, and communal non-waged labour (harvests, housebuilding etc).

After decades, representation hardened into heredity and elite networks. Even so that would have been politically sustainable if successive resources booms had not occurred as white rural Australia began its long decline to status as a periphery to capital cities, with agriculture now near labour-free. 

The Country Party was never much concerned with mining, since areas where it was concentrated were politically left. It became first an advocate of it, then a political client — getting the Bush’s share — then its representative. Now it is near identical with it.

Former party leader John Anderson became chairman of Eastern Star Gas. His successor in the Nationals, Mark Vaile, now sits on the board at Whitehaven Coal, against which farmers in the Liverpool Plains have staged hundreds of days of blockades. Party scion Larry Anthony was a lobbyist for the Shenhua Watermark mine. And on it goes.

This is something more than the network of influence and lobbying over the Coalition as a whole, documented in the excellent Greenpeace/Simon West report. It is a conveyer belt between the legislative role and direct ownership. It marked the moment the Nats, as an organisation, lost interest in representing their community.

That already produced one disaster: our give-away gas “export” business, which has cost us billions and raised power prices. Now it gives National Party MPs a powerful incentive to fail to represent their communities in advocating around the immediate and mid-term future effects of climate change.

For the viability of rural Australia, the time is now: for Australia to lend its voice to advocating sharp emission reductions by 2030, in the hope that warming can be kept to 2.5 degrees or thereabouts.

Thousands of excess deaths, many by burning, are already a tale foretold over the coming decades. But the possibility that there will be anything left of northern rural Australia now hangs in the balance.

That was once the Country Party’s bag. Now, the National Party has made itself the enemy of rural Australia’s survival. And it has done so by invoking the myths and traditions that make that survival meaningful.

The party’s betrayal of its people should be shouted from the burning rooftops, because, finally, people across the country are starting to understand what’s been done to them.

If the Nats will be a casualty, it will be the only one deserved. 

Peter Fray

A lot can happen in 3 months.

3 months is a long time in 2020. Join us to make sense of it all.

Get you first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12. Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

12 weeks for $12